UB Researchers Call On Buffalo Firefighters For Assistance In Study On Decompression Sickness

By Lois Baker

Release Date: January 21, 1994 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- University at Buffalo researchers trying to find out why decompression sickness, commonly known as the bends, affects some people more than others have enlisted an unusual ally -- the Buffalo Fire Department.

Decompression sickness occurs when a person subjected to high atmospheric pressure for several hours enters an environment with low atmospheric pressure too quickly.

It is a serious occupational hazard for deep-sea divers, astronauts, private aviators who fly nonpressurized small planes, and certain other specialized workers, and is a major concern to the two to three million recreational divers in the United States.

The culprit is nitrogen, an inert gas in normal air, explained Claes Lundgren, M.D., director of UB’s Center for Research in Special Environments and the principal investigator on the project.

Under high pressure, such as experienced during a deep-sea dive, nitrogen becomes dissolved in the blood and body tissues, he said. If a diver ascends slowly, nitrogen leaves the blood stream gradually and is expelled through the lungs. If a diver surfaces quickly, however, pressure falls rapidly and the nitrogen gas is released from the tissues, much like bubbles in a can of soda pop when it is opened.

The bubbles can block blood vessels, causing serious problems. The condition can be fatal.

"We don’t fully understand how decompression sickness comes about, or what makes persons more or less susceptible," said Lundgren. "If we can learn more about what happens in the body, maybe we could come up with some way to avoid it or treat it better."

Lundgren and his research team are learning about decompression sickness by studying how the body rids itself of nitrogen. The researchers are particularly interested in finding out why susceptibility seems to increase with age.

For this research, they needed healthy men of a variety of ages whose work schedules make them available during the day. This is where the Buffalo Fire Department enters the picture.

Having worked successfully with firefighters on projects in his native Sweden, Lundgren decided to call on them again.

Firefighters are uniquely qualified for this project," he said. "They have special schedules, are accustomed to using breathing gear, are in good physical condition, and are well disciplined, an essential quality for good scientific research subjects."

So he telephoned a deputy fire commissioner, who put out a call to his firefighters. Several have volunteered to date.

Participants, who receive a small stipend in return for their time, recline in an air-tight plastic compartment and breathe nitrogen-free air through a mask until all nitrogen is washed out through their lungs. Meanwhile, investigators measure how fast the nitrogen dissipates and gather other vital information through a battery of computerized instruments.

Lundgren hopes to complete the project by spring.

In addition to preventing health problems caused by the malady, knowing more about the causes of decompression sickness could be a boon to corporations, such as deep-sea oil drillers, who use divers regularly. A diver who spends one hour at a depth of 300 feet must spend the next seven hours in a decompression chamber, Lundgren said.

"If we could make decompression happen faster and safer," he stated, "it would be a terrific economic benefit."